The Atlanta Attack and the Power of Naming
March 19, 2021
Earlier this week, tragedy struck in Georgia. Robert Aaron Long, a twenty-one-year-old white male from Woodstock, GA, shot eight innocent people—six of whom were Asian women—in three different massage spas across the state. I learned of the developing story Tuesday night before bed and I slept in worry. I awoke Wednesday morning reaching for my phone to check for any available updates. I sat in anguish the remainder of the day feeling the grief and suffering of my Asian siblings as my mind added this attack to the long list of senseless attacks by white men who have wreaked destruction on communities of color: Dylan Roof’s attack on Black worshippers at Mother Emmanuel in 2015, Patrick Crusius’s attack on Latinx shoppers in Walmart in 2019, and the continued underreported attacks against Indigenous women each year. What pains we bear.
Over the past year, anti-Asian violence has been at an all-time high. While this phenomenon is not new, the past year has exposed these threatening living conditions to the wider public. These attacks have come in the form of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic, public and physical assaults, and racist jokes and verbal attacks under the previous administration. And now, just a few weeks past the anniversary of COVID-19’s entrance to the United States, a white man goes on a murder spree targeting Asian-owned massage spas.
Investigations are underway and the suspect has been captured, but officers state it is too early to name the attacks as racially motivated hate crimes or terrorist attacks. According to officers, the suspect took responsibility for his actions after sharing that he had a sex addiction which he wanted to eliminate. Members of his family were even cooperative in helping officers locate Long. Peers have shared about his deep faith and grief with his own addictions. And he was emotionally distraught after being kicked out of his parents’ home just the night before leading to a bad day the next morning. Instead of ending his own life, Long felt he would do others struggling with sex addiction a favor by targeting the spas. Similar to the 6 January 2021 insurrection, we are witnessing a similar pattern of narrative reorientation when white men are prime suspects.
As I have scrolled Twitter and engaged in various conversations, I have become aware of one of the reasons for our communal pain. There is the absence of naming. Long’s actions have not been appropriately named to open us to future healing. I personally believe names are magical. Letters come together to form an identity, a concept, a person; and that string of letters gives definition and character to experience. In my disciplines, bioethics and theological studies, both names and the act of naming are profound because they often relieve people of distress. People are given diagnoses after years of feeling isolated in their bodies; space is established for the creation of communities who help carry suffering; and invisible mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual pains are finally made visible. All of this comes from names, simple letters connected in unique ways.
Naming is also a liberative act of justice. Naming oppressive acts, conditions, and systems brings to light the existing communal suffering. This naming makes the unseen seen and demands restorative responses from the majority because “the other” can no longer be ignored. As we continue into the tumultuous start of this decade and cross over the one-year mark of a global pandemic, I believe naming is more imperative now than ever. I continue to name that black lives do matter, that anti-Asian violence is real, and that the persecution of Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx communities is the history of the United States. I name that white supremacist structures and systems must be dismantled to achieve equity for all and that neoliberalism demands religious resistance. I say the names of our trans and non-binary siblings whose unjust murders are rarely widely reported. And I name the gender-based violence that disproportionately impacts all women.
When we live in a world that seeks to rename suffering in a way that turns a blind eye to oppression and eliminates the voices of marginalized and oppressed communities, we turn towards injustice and rest in hate. Howard Thurman, in Jesus and the Disinherited, described a four-pronged breakdown of hate:
“In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness…In the second place, contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic…In the third place, an unsympathetic understanding tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will…In the fourth place, ill will, when dramatized in a human being, becomes hatred walking on the earth” (75-8).
When we intentionally reduce others to nonhuman objects, e.g., agents satisfying sexual addictions, we eliminate the possibility of the type of contact that produces warmth, fellowship, and sympathy. We feel entitled to blame the other for our individual character flaws, justifying our actions of ill will, e.g., murdering massage spa staff persons because they are “a temptation…to eliminate.” We then become the embodiment of hatred, blind to the trauma we have caused, e.g., fleeing several scenes after committing murder and traveling to more locations to replicate that same violence and ill will.
In our absence to name hate, anti-[insert racial/ethnic group] violence, and most importantly white supremacy, we become complicit in the deaths and suffering of the innocent. Naming leads to actions, and actions lead to change. Stories like Long’s murder spree can no longer be a headline for a few days that drift into an annual remembrance story reported by NPR. Communities across the country must collectively engage, using all the tools we have, to effect change. Anti-racism reading lists are no longer enough. When we see hate, will we name it as such? Or will we create stories that paint people of color as villains and white men as misguided victims? Will we intervene and demand justice for the oppressed? Or will we make excuses for why we can’t get involved in the fight for the kind of equity that provides our children with the world we all deserved centuries ago?
Robert Aaron Long violently attacked and murdered eight people. We must name his actions as hate and violence. We must hold our society accountable for allowing this story to be replicated over and over again. We must demand justice in word and in deed.
Shaunesse’ is a graduate student at Boston University studying ethics and theology and is an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
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